Qatrina and the Books

Amit Chaudhuri

  • The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
    Faber, 436 pp, £7.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23880 4

What is Pakistani writing? Whatever it might be, it seems to have taken up newsprint lately. Things have been changing quickly and irrevocably over the last seven or eight years: a great symbol of American capitalism was destroyed by two aeroplanes; this was followed, some years later, by a crash in the market no less resounding and sudden; in South Asia, Pakistan (marginalised and nearly abandoned by post-Cold War politics) has been veering between being a frail democracy and becoming a basket case. In no obvious way connected to all this, a handful of Anglophone writers has recently been emerging from that country. Most of them are young, and have written one or two or three books; some, like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, have successful careers and lives elsewhere. Their work is not part of the long 20th century; they are not a necessary component of a post-colonial efflorescence, as Indian Anglophone writing appeared to be in the 1980s; they are not in any clear way a part of a national literature; they do not bring with them the promise of offering to the reader the ‘sights and sounds’ of what used to be, in Kipling’s time, North-West India. They are a 21st-century phenomenon, appearing at a time when the new supposed fundamentals of this century – free-market dominance, the end of history, the clash of civilisations – suddenly seem frayed and ephemeral. Pakistani writers are interestingly poised: implicated in both the unfolding and the unravelling of our age.

Who, or what, are the antecedents of this present lot: Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Moni Mohsin, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie? The answer – given the multilingualism of South Asia, its histories and enmities, its experiences of modernity and colonisation – has to be a complex one. The riches and idiosyncrasies of Urdu writing must be one antecedent, as an ur-literature which is seldom invoked but which must inform the work. Urdu’s fastidious formalism, the predominance of the short form in its 20th-century fiction, could help explain, for example, Hamid’s choice in The Reluctant Fundamentalist of a form that’s unpopular in Anglophone writing: what Henry James called ‘the dear, the blessed nouvelle’. But the French term reminds us of the currency the novella has had in Europe, and that Hamid has said he was drawn to the genre by way of Camus’s The Fall. This makes things more complicated, not least because we can’t set up an easy opposition between Anglophone diasporic Pakistani writing and Urdu-language literature – between the native and the foreign – because Hamid’s response to Camus must have a deep and long lineage in Urdu cosmopolitanism and its engagement with Europe.[*]

If we were to make a case for a Pakistani aesthetic, in the way that a case for an Indian aesthetic was once made by people like the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, and then reformulated in postcolonial terms after Midnight’s Children, we’d have to use different rhetoric from the sort that has haunted a certain view of the Indian arts for a century. Salman Rushdie has been an iconic figure to at least some of the writers I’ve mentioned (and some have been blurbed by him), but they treat their cultural inheritance in a different way. For one thing, they’re largely, and enigmatically, silent about that inheritance and aesthetic; for another, their work – heterogeneous though it is – doesn’t send out the message, as Rushdie’s did (through markers in the writing that sought to establish continuities with carefully chosen texts like the Ramayana and The Thousand and One Nights), that the impulse towards the epic dominates South Asian storytelling. If anything, the miniaturist’s impulse, with its attendant craftsmanship – which has as valid a lineage (some would argue a richer one) in Indian aesthetics as the epic – determines the texture of many of these new works. But even to begin to make a case based on cultural characteristics would be disingenuous, partly because the works themselves resist such an argument, as does the culture itself, with its own tradition of eclecticism and contradictory borrowings.

Two precursors to these new writers should be mentioned; both are still productive. The older of them is Bapsi Sidhwa, who is roughly a contemporary of Rushdie’s and shares some of his preoccupations: to construct an imaginative (in Rushdie’s case, mock-serious) investigation into the conditions of Partition and Independence; to record the everyday lives of a minority within the new nation (in Rushdie, the secular Muslim bourgeoisie; in Sidhwa, the Parsi community); the urge to find, in English, something like an authentic South Asian vernacular. Although she is Pakistani, Sidhwa could be seen to fit in with the general project of Indian English writing from the 1980s onwards. The other precursor, Aamer Hussein, who moved to London from Pakistan when he was 15, and has lived here for 40 years, is something of an anomaly. An obsessive and dextrous practitioner of the short story, he emerges from the earlier tradition of Urdu cosmopolitanism – he has translated some of these stories – and reinvents it in an English context. It isn’t only that he might occasionally write about Maida Vale and Little Venice, because at least one of the writers he admires, Qurratulain Hyder, wrote about London too. His take on the tradition is informed by his longing to be embedded in a textual culture, a culture of allusions and references such as the Urdu avant-garde worked within, while at the same time having to negotiate a literary environment in which very different sorts of enterprise were underway: the English novel post-Amis, the Indian novel in English, traditions in which narrative supersedes allusion. It’s in accommodating his own incongruity that Hussein has been particularly gifted.

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[*] Amit Chaudhuri reviewed The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the LRB of 4 October 2007.